Troubled Waters: Toxins Stir Up San Francisco Bay

April 06, 1986|MARK A. STEIN | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Outraged by the dumping of sewage and diking of wetlands, naturalists and others rallied in the 1960s to "save San Francisco Bay"--and for many years, it seemed they had done just that.

Now folks aren't so sure.

"Save the Bay" sentiments of two decades ago prompted several federal and state regulations that have ended the routine dumping of raw sewage into the bay and slowed the wholesale draining of wetlands.

But the movement did little to control the disposal of toxic chemical waste or restrict the diversion to Central and Southern California of increasing levels of fresh river water. That fresh water not only flushes pollutants out to sea, but also gives many fish species the means to eat and reproduce, biologists say.

Getting Sicker?

As a result, studies now indicate that San Francisco Bay--which scientists say is second only to Chesapeake Bay in size and importance among the nation's inland estuaries--is still sick, and may be getting sicker.

"The bay has improved in one sense because in the past 20 years we have largely dealt with matters of oxygen depletion and fecal coliform bacteria caused by the dumping of raw organic matter," said Frederic H. Nichols, one of four U.S. Geological Survey scientists to co-author a new comprehensive report on the history of human activity in the bay. It was published in Science magazine.

"What we've only recently begun to really focus on . . . are the trace toxic elements (in municipal, industrial and agricultural wastes). We know organisms in the estuary are contaminated to various degrees, so toxic chemicals are the issue now."

"We have increased degradation and decreased (fresh water) flow," said Jeannette A. Whipple, chief of physiological ecology investigations at the National Marine Fisheries Service laboratory in Tiburon. "When that has happened in other areas, you have run the risk of creating a dead sea."

San Francisco Bay is far from dead, she said, but plainly it is in trouble. The precise nature and extent of that trouble is unclear because of a lack of research into the effects of pollution and other human activities on the bay.

"There is a lot of evidence that something is going on," said Nichols. He cited as an example numerous tests confirming toxic chemical residue in fish. "We are contaminating them but we don't know how we're affecting them," he said. "We don't know why some (species) are able to cope while others are not."

A 1983 study by Citizens for a Better Environment, a private advocacy group that focuses on toxic-waste and water-quality issues, concluded:

"Due to the chronic toxicity posed by persistent toxic substances in the bay environment, the threat of long-term ecological and human health effects does exist. (But) confounding variables and the slow, subtle nature of these effects makes documentation very difficult."

A long menu of edible creatures harvested in the bay, including the native Dungeness crab, a tasty regional favorite once retailed in bulk on Fisherman's Wharf for pennies apiece, are disappearing from the bay.

Ducks in the southern part of the bay, near San Jose, have been found with high levels of selenium, a mineral blamed for deformities in birds elsewhere.

Decline of Striped Bass

But perhaps the best-documented example of trouble in the bay is the decline of the striped bass. The trouble encountered by that hearty, silvery sports fish in particular, as documented in studies by the National Marine Fisheries Service and state Department of Fish and Game, has become something of a cause celebre in the Bay Area.

The federal fisheries service reported last year that bass in San Francisco Bay were in poorer health--smaller, less resistant to parasites, more tainted by chemicals and plagued with liver and reproductive disorders--than bass from Oregon's pristine Coos River, Lake Mead in Nevada and the Hudson River in upstate New York.

At the same time, state Department of Fish and Game officials reported that their "Striped Bass Index," a selective census that is used to measure the species' number and fecundity, had sunk to a record low of 6.3. That is below the 9.0 rating achieved during the severe drought of the mid-1970s and far short of the state's 79.0 target.

Conservationists, fishing enthusiasts and others believe the decline of the bass, a closely watched "indicator" fish, is an ominous sign.

Collapse of an Estuary

"This is scientifically acceptable evidence that the most important inland estuary on the west coasts of the North and South American continents is collapsing before our eyes," said William T. Davoren, director of the Bay Institute, a private environmental research group.

Others have been somewhat more restrained in their assessments, but concern for the fish and the implications of its dilemma have renewed popular interest in the health of the bay. That interest extends to Washington and Sacramento.

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